09 July 2023

Introducing the Keeling Curve

If you are like me you will have good friends or colleagues who in all sincerity believe that recent changes in the climate are part of a "normal cycle" of such events.  They might reconsider if you show them the Keeling Curve.
Embedded above is a graph of atmospheric CO2 concentrations measured at an observatory at the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii - about as far from industrial sources of CO2 as one can reasonably expect.

My knee-jerk reaction is to not like a graph where the y-axis doesn't include a referential zero, but in this case what they are showing is the life history of such measurements from the first time they were measured. The home page for the Keeling Curve is maintained by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Now, here's the curve of atmospheric CO2 since the 1700s -

- clearly showing the onset of the industrial revolution and the modern acceleration of the process.  Still looking for that "cyclic" phenomenon?  Here's the curve for the past 10,000 years:

But there are cycles - absolutely.  Our friends are quite correct in that regard.  To see the cycles you need to expand the x-axis to accommodate an 800,000 year range:

Now consider whether the data points for our lifetimes are part of a "normal cycle."

You can read more at Big Island Video News.


  1. I'm inclined to agree that the Industrial Revolution must be a driver, but the charts seem to show that the 1950s/1960s were the more immediate cause - is there anything that happened around then that could be so significant?

    1. I'm just guessing, but I would assume that the factor you're looking for is the accelerated growth of the human population, triggered by advances in science. Compare the curve in this post:


    2. First graph in this article: population goes hyperbolic in the 50s and 60s. As did per capita consumption of fossil fuel--a wicked combination: https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

  2. The standard defense against this data is to either dismiss it as "just one plot", or to cast doubt on measurements from 800,000 years ago. I mean, how good were CO2 sensors back then? That data can't be good.

    The problem with people "just asking questions" is that the vast majority those questions have been answered. A long time ago. With lots of data. However, since simpleton wiseguys can't imagine that someone else has thought of something before them, they can't be bothered googling the answer, or worse, getting familiar with the underlying science.

    This is how you end up with a president riffing of a meeting he just had about injecting people with bleach, or thinking that debate over the validity of what a doctor does happens in a podcast with a wannabe politician, instead of in scientific literature.

    Here's a rule of thumb: If you learn something about something that others have studied, the chance that you have an original thought on the subject is near zero - you are just not smarter than the hundreds or thousands of scientists that have dedicated their lives to this subject. So, by all means, have questions. But then, look up the answers. They are there. Study them. Even if it takes years.

    And by all means, if you keep finding no answer after studying the existing material: Congratulations, you are now a scientist. Go get your data and answer your question.

    But please, don't expect others to keep rehashing stuff that's been figured out. This is what books and school are for.

    1. Reasons for resisting climate science: ideology (capitalism must never be questioned) and superstition (God controls climate). Reasons for lifestyle denialism (we who accept science, but live as if we don't): material sacrifice is hard and vacation flights are fun. Deniers and non-deniers live the same way of life, but non-deniers will vote for politicians promising green solutions, as long as those solutions are within limits, guaranteeing lifestyles will not be substantially different. Science is important, but only insofar as it can be met with moral insight and an actionable moral imperative. That is to say, accepting science without a moral struggle defaults to sentiment more than substance. At this point, climate change is a moral problem as much as a scientific problem. I fear we're not up to the task.

    2. material sacrifice is hard and vacation flights are fun

      True that. But to put it all on morality and personal responsibility is also a fallacy because in the end a single person can not vote with his feet/wallet/vote enough to get society turned around. We really have to see this is a societal problem - a lot of decisions are made by parties who are insulated from market pressures (often by government regulations) to do better. We should pretend not that everybody who doesn't live like a Buddhist monk is a hypocrite. It doesn't work like that.

      I fear we're not up to the task.

      No need to fear. Our behavior since the Club of Rome report shows we're not.

    3. I've never understood how a "societal problem" gets solved when a society is populated by people intent on making a problem worse. This is where the prevailing view of environmentalists fails. When we dismiss the role of the individual as a moral agent, we weaken resolve at all levels and this is exactly what our environmental superstars (McKibben, et al) have done. Yes, anyone who claims to be an environmentalist and doesn't "live like Buddhist monk" is a hypocrite. Honesty is a good place to begin. Systemic change has to come from somewhere and it can't come from masses of people steeped in denial of their personal responsibility. At least not while democratic institutions are tasked with the work. If environmental leadership was ever potentially critical in "saving the planet," that leadership made the possibly fatal decision to effectively pit individual agency against "big solutions," as if these are mutually exclusive, instead of interdependent and synergistic. I can't think of a more damning error in world history.

    4. Yes, anyone who claims to be an environmentalist and doesn't "live like Buddhist monk" is a hypocrite.

      No, they're not. The idea that individuals can use their market power to force change is a fallacy. Markets aren't nearly as free as free marketeers pretend they are.

      Honesty is a good place to begin.

      Indeed. And the first thing to be honest about is that individual choice has a very limited impact.

      Systemic change has to come from somewhere

      Yes, but that vast motivation for change sits in government regulations. And governments are generally bribed by companies that don't want to do the right thing.

      Take for instance energy. You can want green energy delivered to my house, but if the state you live in does not force the monopoly power producer to invest in green power, individuals are powerless. Especially if such a state is dominated by one party. Or if like me, you're an immigrant, you don't get to vote at all. So how does living like a Buddhist help then?

      The honesty that you call for is that systemic change needs to come from the system. And that makes things complicated. Which makes sense, because climate change is a complicated problem. Simple solutions don't exist. Complicated solutions exist. And require the system to help.

      Another example is water use.
      Here's water use in the US: https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/styles/medium/public/2017-02/ws-ourwater-freshwater-withdrawls-version-2_0.png?itok=VlrZbG-2

      The public only uses 1/8th of all water. And yet, whenever there's a drought, the public gets told to shower shorter, and stop watering their lawn, while power companies, and agriculture, who use 2/3 of all water barely get asked to do anything. And power companies could invest in green energy like wind and solar, which does not require water intensive cooling. But this generally does not happen, and we get stuck with this bullshit about individual morality, while the morality of the big players is ignored.

      And to conclude, this does not mean individuals are completely devoid of responsibility. By all means, get an electric car, remove your lawn (if your HOA doesn't prevent you from doing that), toss solar panels on your roof (if your HOA doesn't ban that and you don't live in a multi-unit building), commute to work by foot, bike or transit, eat organic, etc. Of course this all helps.

      But don't think this is where the big gains sit. They sit in industrial regulation.

      You can live like a vegan Buddhist monk on three grains of organic rice a month in a cabin in the woods, and it simply won't matter. Especially if the woods are burning down like in Canada or California.

    5. I'm familiar with the points you make; McKibben 101.

      Perhaps an analogy: A fabric is made of individual fibers. Of course it matters how strong those fibers are, right? So, if we tell people their individual actions don't matter (much, or at all) and big solutions must come from the top down (or the bottom up, see below), we are very certainly dis-empowering people on a moral level, weakening every fiber in the social fabric. The effect is to cultivate complacence and that's what we see. This actually makes political solutions LESS possible.

      It's not reasonable to think these same dis-empowered people, whose individual actions make no difference, are going to act as fully empowered and morally developed people with respect only to voting or...? As if the personal path of sacrifice can't or won't be aligned with political motivation.

      Imagine if everyone had the passion of the person who actually simplifies their life for environmental reasons. Your arguments imply it's silly to imagine such a thing. People will not sacrifice! Of course this feeds the notion that people will not sacrifice. It's a self-fulfilling feedback loop and environmentalists are the prime agents in promoting this version of moral failure--which becomes political failure, IMO.

      As of the moment: The affluent white liberal environmentalists I know are driving a Prius or a Tesla or a Ford Lightning (with an 1800 pound battery) and flying to France for a week or two and then.... The carbon footprint on their more "electric lifestyle" is not all that different from affluent Republican deniers. In fact, it's often worse.

      So, are these "big solution" affluent liberals going to politically support any motion toward an 80% reduction (what it would take Americans to get to a point they're using one Earth instead of five) in consumption, given they've been McKibbenized into thinking they simply can't make sacrifices? Why would they support reality-based political change requiring collective SACRIFICE? They have no personal moral basis for doing so; the moral work has been taken off the table.

    6. A fabric is made of individual fibers. Of course it matters how strong those fibers are, right? So, if we tell people their individual actions don't matter

      I'm not arguing that individual actions don't matter. I'm arguing that the fabric is bigger than just individuals. You are ignoring companies and institutions.

      Looks, it's simple. Everybody who lives in an area where it snows knows that replying solely on individual responsibility doesn't work. Most localities where it snows have regulations that requires property owners to clean the side-walk in front of their property. And we all know that this still leaves half the street not cleaned.

      For one, because a whole bunch of assholes don't sweep their part of the side-walk. You are right those people should be activated. But also because large parts of the side-walk are not really owned by property owners.

      In my neighborhood, there's a big power-station. The power company never does their part of the side-walk there. Some highrises in my neighborhood also have a rather limited interpretation of what their side-walk is, namely only in front of their door, not around the corner and back. Meanwhile, renters in that building can not do a damn thing to get their landlord to do better. Much like you and me have no influence over the polluting that Big Oil does, even when we live like a vegan monk in the woods.

      To quote Mitt Romney: Corporations are people too, my friend.

      He's wrong on that. But he's not wrong that they exist and have influence.

    7. If anything I've said leads to the conclusion that I believe the individual is all that matters and the political and economic institutions through which law and policy change occurs do not, then I'm not communicating clearly.

      It's my opinion that environmentalists have undervalued the individual, not because I think the individual is all that matters but because it is upon the foundation of individual thought and action that a democracy rests--and our economy in many ways. If the individual is not empowered in thought and action, the system is deprived of political force.

      Marginalizing individual actions and claiming they're secondary, on the path to "big solutions," is a mistake. I think the vegan hermit cartoon is meant to communicate the folly of the individual as moral agent. Instead why not see the empowerment of the individual, to include lifestyle change (sacrifice), as one side of the coin, with collective action the other?

      I do believe the mainstream environmental culture is so deeply suspicious of the individual it can't see straight. It's as if the individual must, by nature, be diametrically opposed to collective action, when it seems plain that interdependence is the only only viable course and that moral development can only happen within individuals and that our "environmental problem" is very certainly a moral problem.

      If I were less charitable I might wonder if the lifestyles of environmentalists, and their colleagues at our universities in the US, might be what's at stake. That is, if there's just no way to cut to the heart of the question of how we live without unacceptable material and social discomfort and that this is one possible explanation for the "pass" we're given for our individual, personal conduct.

    8. We're starting to talk in circles, but a few more comments:

      If the individual is not empowered in thought and action, the system is deprived of political force.

      Tadaa! There we go! It is! In the US, money has taken away the fear of the voter from politicians, and elsewhere it's a mix of lobbying and corruption.

      Marginalizing individual actions and claiming they're secondary, on the path to "big solutions," is a mistake.

      It's just an uncomfortable reality.

      The whole focus on individual responsibility is a cynical deployment of the lutheran and calvinistic focus on individual guilt. BP actually started this with their bullshit about carbon footprint.


      It's as if the individual must, by nature, be diametrically opposed to collective action

      Wait, now you're accusing lefties of being against collective action?

    9. Yes, I'm absolutely accusing "lefties" of failing to grasp individual moral development as critical to sane collective action

      Yes, we're talking in circles. The bottom line: You see the individual's moral and behavioral challenge, in the realm of environmental action, as a distraction. I don't.

  3. How much of that CO2 was volcanic in origin?

    1. Here you go -



    2. Not great that the top result of that question led (in my Google search) to a quack site.

  4. The above conversation shows me the virtues of being so poor that I've never owned more than one car or taken a vacation or flown in a plane. Man, being super poor sure does have its perks for the environment. Maybe Republicans are fighting climate change by making it too expensive to own things that pollute. Nah.

    1. Contrary to popular belief and surface-level appearance, the homeless in my region have the least negative impact on the environment. I don't recommend homelessness as a solution; on the other hand, without drastic reductions in material consumption, environmental "salvation" is impossible. One question is how to make these changes while retaining a decent quality of life. But the chance of humanity (the "rich" parts of the world) committing to drastic reductions is next to zero, making the question of how to do it gracefully (equitably) a moot point.

  5. @ Crowboy: Both your last statements are not what I said.


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